It’s 1968 in Japan
Those of you who follow baseball history know that 1968 was MLB’s Year of the Pitcher, at least since clean baseballs came into exclusive use in 1920. Carl Yastrzemski led the AL with the lowest average to win a batting title (.301) and was the only regular AL batter to hit higher then .290.
Only five hitters in the NL hit .300 that year, with Pete Rose’s .335 average leading all hitters. Seven qualifying pitchers had ERAs below 2.00, and the Washington Senators’ Frank Howard (44) was the only hitter in either circuit to hit more than 36 HRs. It was a tough, tough year to be a hitter.
MLB’s 1968 has nothing on NPB’s 2011. Pitching completely dominates the Japanese game.
As I write this, ten Japanese starters have ERA’s below 2.00. There are only twelve major league teams in Japan, so that means almost every team has a starter with an ERA below 2.00. Offense is so limited this year that Yu Darvish’s (Darvish is the world’s best pitcher not presently on an MLB roster) 1.44 ERA is only good enough for third best in Japan’s Pacific League. Wow!
Only eight players have batting averages at .300 or better, with Matt Murton’s .319 currently leading the Central League and Yoshio Itoi’s .335 leading the Pacific. Murton got off to a brutal start this year, but he’s been hot the last month or so. Still, it’s unlikely he’ll finish anywhere close to the .349 batting average he posted in 2010.
Only nine hitters have slugging percentages of .450 or higher. Former Reds/Mariners prospect Wladimir Balentien has gone very cold after a torrid start, but still leads the Central League with 19 HRs. However, his batting average has fallen about 80 points in the last six to eight weeks, done to .258.
The Seibu Lions’ Takeya Nakamura leads all sluggers with 27 HRs, but except for Balentien and the Softbank Hawks’ Nobuhiro Matsuda (17), no other batter has as many as 15 HRs a little more than half way through NPB’s 140 or so game season (NPB played 144 games in 2010, but they may play fewer this year, what with the start of the season being delayed by the earthquake and tsunami).
You have to think that if the season ends up the way it’s gone so far, the NPB owners will do something this coming off-season to boost offense, such as reduce the size of the strike zone or lower pitchers’ mounds. It’s pretty well been demonstrated that casual fans like offense, and it’s really the casual fans who drive overall attendance numbers, since the hard-core fans are likely to go games in roughly the same numbers however the game on the field is being played.
A final word on Takeya Nakamura. He’s only 27 this year and already in his ninth season in NPB. His power numbers this year are no aberation: he hit 46 HRs in 2008 and 48 HRs in 2009.
I don’t know that we’ll ever see Nakamura playing in MLB. His power numbers won’t translate in U.S. ballparks against MLB pitching, and his other numbers don’t suggest he’s the kind of Japanese hitter who would be productive in the U.S. His career NPB batting average is only .258, he doesn’t walk much, and he strikes out a whole lot. That doesn’t sound like a player an MLB team would want to take a risk on, particularly the way Kosuke Fukudome’s and Akinori Iwamura’s power disappeared when they came stateside.